By Patricia Bonilla, Northern Illinois Conference
When I first started attending a United Methodist church in the near south side of Chicago, after finishing my Bachelor’s degree in a small private liberal arts college, I was very idealistic. I wanted to transform my neighborhood, and the world for that matter, by being involved in social justice work. I wanted to make changes that would better the quality of life of people in my neighborhood and create opportunities for empowerment and inclusion. I worked with day laborers who congregated at the Home Depot parking lot, waiting for employers to contract them for a day or two or for a longer time period. Unfortunately, they were often robbed of their hard-earned wages or injured on the job, and they did not have access to worker’s compensation. I would often hear stories of how they would get contracted for a job and then not get paid for their work; furthermore, they would have to make their way home on their own because the employer did not bother to drive them back to where they had been picked up in the first place. I was outraged by the treatment that these men—predominantly Latino and other ethnic minorities—received not just from their employers but also from city officials who did little to provide safer options for them to look for work.
During this time, I was also working with many Latina women who were employed as temporary workers in factories or other businesses through temporary agencies. I volunteered at a United Methodist church as an ESL teacher (English as a Second Language), helping adults with basic literacy skills, teaching in both English and Spanish, and tutoring children in reading and writing. I was interested in the practical side of ministry, the “doing part,” if you will. But I soon felt that I lacked the theological language and the analytical tools to understand the social structures and the economic forces that contributed to the oppression and exploitation of the communities that I worked in. I also felt that I lacked the analytical tools to understand and therefore transform the patriarchal and racist ideology of the religious institutions that informed and structured my life and my relationships within my church, my family, my community, and ultimately how I engaged the world.
As a young, twenty-something Latina woman working, ministering, and growing into leadership in the church and in my community, it was clear to me that conforming to structures that create a class of people who can so easily be exploited and dehumanized meant there was something radically wrong with those structures. Ultimately, they needed to be changed. Succumbing to institutional policies that define a particular religious framework as universal and thus dominant over marginalized groups—especially racial/ethnic groups—meant losing my agency, my voice, my identify, and my very existence. Early in my ministry, the religious syncretistic practices of the Mexican immigrant community that I served was called into question. This community brought with them many cultural, popular religious traditions when they joined a United Methodist congregation. Some of these practices included the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, recognizing and honoring saints, and celebrating cultural rites of passage for youth, such as the quinceañera (a coming-of-age blessing and celebration). Framing the theological needs and practices of a transitional, transient, or emergent population is not easy.
As Paul appealed to the early Christian communities in his letter to the Romans, he pointed to the necessary inclusion of all of God’s people in the ministry of Christian discipleship. No one group was above another. In Paul’s time, a burnt sacrifice was made as an indication of one’s complete dedication of life to God; this dedication was made in both mind and body. So often, though, in our time, marginalized communities become a part of the larger or dominant institutional church only by giving up their traditions and being consumed as a burnt offering for the sake of the status quo or the cultural dominance of the institution. In his letter to the Romans, Paul did not speak of the consumption of subordinate or marginalized groups into a homogenous Christian community. He pointed to the uniqueness and value of the diverse parts that make up the body of Christ, communities that come together and are transformed by our communal dedication to a life in Christ.
The late theologian and activist, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, also pointed to the transformational power of solidarity between marginalized communities and communities of privilege. She explains that in the U.S., “we have always equated difference with incompatibility. . . . Differences do not have to divide us; they can enrich us.” Her ministry and academic work were dedicated to transforming the structures that oppress and that keep people in poverty for the sake of keeping others in power. She argues that power needs to be re-conceptualized in its capacity to bring about justice instead of its faculty to control and dominate. Power must be understood as exercised by all who are invested in the community and for the good of the community; otherwise it becomes a force used to oppress instead of liberate.
The apostle Paul understood the need to exercise power in community as a practice of solidarity that acknowledged the differences that existed during his time. As the early Christian communities were forming, it was necessary for Paul to state the obvious concerning mutuality in ministry and community. “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5 NRSV).
Within the Wesleyan tradition, our understanding of Scripture is informed by our Christian tradition, experience, and reason. The “Wesleyan quadrilateral” lends itself to the possibility of transformational inclusion of diverse cultures within a religious institution that allows for and nurtures a living spiritual formation of personal religious practice and communal Christian tradition. The spirituality of the Mexican immigrant community in the U.S., as it is practiced and as it is reimagined by its encounter with dominant white religious institutions, is not only vital to the spiritual transformation of US Christianity, it is at the very core of that transformational force. Isasi-Díaz wrote about lo cotidiano, the everyday, which is the starting point for mujerista theology. “She understands lo cotidiano, in an expansive though specific way, as an ethical space—time and place—in which one moves with a certain autonomy, takes decisions and put them into play, decisions that might seem unimportant but that woven together constitute the ethical and moral horizon of the person.” Embracing the diverse spiritualities as they are practiced by Christian communities who make up the body of Christ is at the very core of Paul’s radical message of Christian unity. We are to be transformed by the encounters we have with one another and to discern the will of God as we learn to live as the people of God witnessing to one another the reconciling grace and love of our creator.
As a Latina of Mexican descent, born and raised in the Midwest, I have learned to function within blurred lines of identity and belonging and non-belonging, hyper-visibility and invisibility, living within the tension of plurality as a way of life. It is a life of non-conformity. I have lived within the plurality of the Latina/o communities in this country and the racial/ethnic diversity of the U.S. As a woman in ministry in the role of deacon, ministering to children and youth, a bridging element must always be present between generations; and tensions must be mediated between the pressures put on families to conform to the status quo and the demands of Christian discipleship. Discerning my own call and leadership within the church has been a challenge, as I learn to see my unique gifts and talents as worthy and necessary within an institution that has historically marginalized racial/ethnic people and our religious practices. I have learned to name my struggles and to be in solidarity with others whose struggles are different from mine. The call of radical Christian unity that Paul demands of us must inform our ministries in our churches and transform the structures that exclude and marginalize groups of people. It must continue to inform and renew our relationships grounded in love, justice, and grace, which are essential for the transformation of those structures and, ultimately, for the transformation of the world.
This call of radical Christian unity is one of transformational solidarity. It is not conformed to this world, but rather engaged in the changes that we want to be and the change we want to see in the world. It does not conform to the stereotypes of gender, class, race, or sexuality. It does not conform to the social structures, even of the religious institutions that inform and structure our interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. Christian discipleship is not conformed to the structures that marginalize and exploit; it cannot be complacent with the powers and privileges of dominant culture. It is a radical call to solidarity, grounded in our own struggles—named and unnamed—and embracing one another in the body of Christ through our differences. In the midst of a changing religious landscape in the U.S., how will the Christian church nurture and facilitate radical discipleship that embraces diversity, difference, and tension within a society so eager to conform?
 Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Elizabeth Palmberg, “Faith at the Tipping Point” Sojourners (March 2012). This is “an interview with theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz on solidarity, public life, and the blessings that come when you really listen.” See http://sojo.net/magazine/2012/03/faith-tipping-point.
 Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Transforming the Faiths of Our Fathers: Women Who Changed American Religion, ed. Ann Braude (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 90.
 Ada María Isasi-Díaz, En La Lucha-In the Struggle: A Hispanic Woman’s Liberation Theology. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).
 Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Eduardo Mendieta, Decolonizing Epistemologies: Latina/o Theology and Philosophy. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 8.
2019 – Unity in the Church
2018 – Claim Who We Are in Christ
2017 – Bodies, Oppression, and Gospel
2016 – Birthing a Worldwide Church
2015 – Clergywomen Lead Vital Congregations
2014 – Empowerment for All
2013 – What Next?
2012 – What Does the Lord Require of Us?
2011 – See, I am Doing a New Thing
2010 – Voicing Truth With Grace
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WellSprings, A Journal of United Methodist Clergywomen, is published by the Division of Ordained Ministry, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
Editor: HiRho Y. Park
Managing Editor: Barbara A. Dick
Editorial Circle: Patricia Bonilla, Neelley Hicks, Anita Phillips, Jacqui Rose-Tucker, Trudy Hawkins Stringer